– Colin Wilson
In 1971, many people began to report seeing a ghost near Ratcliff Wharf, on London’s Isle of Dogs.
An elderly clergyman would be observed gazing up the river. But as soon as people took their eye off him for a moment, he would vanish. Many people reported seeing him over the next couple of years, and their accounts were carefully chronicled by a journalist named Frank Smyth. In past centuries, the area had been well known for robbery and violence, and a favourite theory was that the old man had been murdered in a cheap boarding house for the contents of his wallet.
I happened to know this was untrue. For the ghost was the invention of Frank Smyth, who made up the story one day to fill an empty space on the back cover of a magazine called Man, Myth and Magic. He was astonished to learn that his phantom had became part of the folk lore of the East End.
Which explains how I came to take part in a deception of which I still feel slightly ashamed. I was working for BBC2, as the presenter of a series of programmes on the paranormal called “A Leap in the Dark”. And for our final programme, the producer decided to try and demonstrate how easily people can become the victims of suggestion. We went to a waterfront pub whose owner was convinced he had seen the ghost, and he and his wife both described the sighting to me on camera – the old fashioned black clothes and white ruff that 18th century clergymen often wore instead of a dog collar. I hated doing this to them, and was inclined to refuse, until I reflected that the rest of the series had already been filmed, and that this was, after all, making an interesting point about people’s proneness to suggestion.
Besides, I knew that the paranormal events described in the rest of the series were genuine – a poltergeist that wrecked a lawyer’s office, a British peer who dreamed racing winners, a woman who had an accurate dream of her own sister’s suicide.
So when I read that a well-known debunker of the paranormal, Professor Richard Wiseman, describes in the British Journal of Psychology experiments that prove the gullibility of some of his students, I accept them without question. Wiseman describes how a key was bent by a stage magician who claimed to have the same powers as Uri Geller, and how when the key was laid on the tabletop, many students accepted the suggestion that it was continuing to bend. This, says Wiseman, proves that most of us are inclined to believe what we are told.
Which, he implies, demonstrates that Uri Geller’s powers might also involve suggestion. I.e: that having bent a key using ‘stage magic’, he could then convince the onlookers that it must have been genuine by making them think the key continued to bend when placed on a tabletop.
If he will forgive me, I feel he is deceiving himself, and anyone who is gullible enough to be convinced by his logic. Psychologists have known for two centuries that people are suggestible. And that neither proves nor disproves that ‘magicians’ like Geller are doing it all by suggestion.
Here I can speak from experience. I met Geller for the first time in the mid-1970s, not long after his demonstrations of spoon-bending on the David Dimbleby programme on BBC television had made him famous. I had been asked to write a film script about him, and was determined not to be deceived. The secretary of the tycoon who was hiring me took us along to a West End restaurant for lunch. The girl – her name was Rae Knight – sat beside me in a corner, and Geller sat facing us, with his back to the main body of the dining room.
When I asked him to demonstrate his spoon-bending abilities, he immediately put me on my guard by explaining that he ‘drew his power from metal’, and would need to take the spoon across to the nearest radiator. Whereupon, Rae and I watched as he placed the spoon against the radiator, rubbed it with his finger, and within half a minute was triumphantly waving the bent spoon. Naturally, I was not impressed, for he was too far away to watch closely. But a few minutes later, he did something that left me in no doubt that he had paranormal powers: he read my mind.
He told me to draw something on the back of my menu card, and turned his back on me as I did so. I put one hand round the card, and Rae, sitting beside me, was watching in case he tried to peek. I did a drawing of a kind of goblin with a serpentine neck that I often drew for my children. It was my own invention, and it was impossible that Uri could have known about it. At that point, he told me to cover it up with my hand, and turned round to face me. He then asked me to stare into his eyes, and to try to transmit the drawing to him. After a few moments he shook his head: ‘No, it’s not working – try harder’. And then, just as I was convinced it was going to be a failure, he seized a pen and duplicated my drawing on the back of his own menu card. There could have been no possible way he could have deceived me.
Not long after that I had dinner with the stage magician who calls himself the Amazing Randi, and who has made something of a career of accusing Geller of trickery. Right in front of my eyes, Randi bent a spoon by – apparently – rubbing it gently with his finger. Then he performed number of card tricks that struck me as totally baffling. But finally, I told him about Uri’s mind-reading, and asked: ‘Could you duplicate that?’ He thought for a moment then shook his head. ‘Not without preparation’.
It is worth knowing that Richard Wiseman started his own career as a stage magician, and became one of the youngest members of the magic circle. Then, possibly inspired by Randi, he decided to make a career of using his knowledge of stage magic to investigate the paranormal, and has finally achieved the kind of reputation that makes him welcome on television programmes as the resident sceptic.
One of his sponsors is CSICOP, the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal [now CSI], a group of scientists and scientific popularisers who take pleasure in declaring themselves unrepentant materialists. The very suggestion of anything paranormal – like ghosts, extra-sensory perception or precognition of the future – makes them foam at the mouth. But in 1975, they got their fingers badly burned when they set out to disprove some scientific claims made for astrology by the French statistician Michel Gauquelin. He alleged that the a person’s choice of profession seemed to be influenced by the planet he was ‘born under’, and that statistics show that an unusual number of sports champions are born under Mars, actors under Jupiter, scientists under Saturn, and so on.
A physicist named Dr. Dennis Rawlins asked to examine these claims, but when he did so, his computer analysis tended to support Gauquelin. Still convinced that Gauquelin had to be wrong, Rawlins explained his own results and tried to convinced his colleagues to move on to firmer ground. They ignored him; instead there was a cover-up, and (as Rawlins wrote) ‘one’s willingness to go along with the cover-up (to protect the cause) became a test of loyalty’. They ended by throwing him out and suppressing his results. Rawlins refused to be silenced, and his subsequent revelations did CSICOP some serious damage.
So whenever I see Professor Richard Wiseman’s name in print, I expect to hear something that will sound like the CSICOP party line.
Now this is not what bothers me, for I accept that scepticism plays an important part in scientific investigation. I only become worried when sceptics show signs of refusing to look facts in the face.
And where suggestion is concerned, some pretty amazing facts have been around for nearly two centuries.
First, Dr. Anton Mesmer discovered that illnesses can be cured by ‘mesmerism’, which involved stroking with magnets to move ‘vital fluids’ around the body. No psychologist now doubts that the success of this treatment was due in part to suggestion. But then a French marquis named Puysegur placed the whole thing on firmer ground when he stumbled on the techniques of hypnosis. He made passes in front of the eyes of a servant, who fell into a trance and carried out orders with his eyes closed. Later, a girl called Madeleine would obey mental orders given to her by members of the audience. It seemed that hypnosis had made her telepathic. In other words, it seemed to release ‘hidden powers’. Thereafter, the history of hypnosis in the 19th century is full of well authenticated examples of telepathy taking place under hypnosis, including a series of impressive experiments conducted by ‘Darwin’s rival’ Alfred Russell Wallace, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research.
All of which, I would suggest to Professor Wiseman, does the exact opposite of proving that paranormal powers are a matter of suggestion. It seems, on the contrary, to show that the human mind possesses paranormal powers of which most of us are unaware, but which can be induced to operate by the right kind of suggestion.
While I was studying Uri Geller in the 1970s – I went on to write a book about him – I was also investigating cases of so-called poltergeist activity, in which objects fly around the room and china gets smashed. This often seemed to happen in the presence of teenagers, and I concluded that they develop certain unconscious powers that can produce these effects by a kind of spontaneoua ‘psychokinesis’ – or mind over matter. And the more I studied Uri, the more I became convinced that his own powers are of a similar nature.
Not if you come to these things with an open mind, and are prepared to put your prejudices behind you.
If I thought Professor Wiseman had that kind of mind I would take him rather more seriously.